Column: Historians’ Rush to Judge Bush Reflects Poorly on the Profession
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be dedicated Thursday at Southern Methodist University, an event that will draw all of the nation’s living presidents to Dallas. Despite the coming fanfare, many Americans consider Bush’s presidency a failure. There is little evidence that scholars, including the influential historians who pronounce the success or failure of an administration, are having second thoughts about their assessment of Bush as a failed chief executive. Unfortunately, far too many scholars revealed partisan bias and abandoned any pretense of objectivity in their rush to condemn the Bush presidency.
Many academics branded Bush a failure long before his presidency ended — and not just fringe elements of the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Howard Zinn, but also scholars from the nation’s most prestigious universities. In April 2006, Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz published an essay in Rolling Stone titled “The Worst President in History?” Wilentz argued that “George W. Bush’s presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace” in part because he had “demonized the Democrats,” hurting the nation’s ability to wage war. No other U.S. president “failed to embrace the opposing political party” in wartime, Wilentz claimed, despite numerous examples to the contrary, such as when Franklin D. Roosevelt compared his Republican opponents to fascists in 1944.
Not to be outdone, in December of that year Columbia University history professor Eric Foner proclaimed Bush “the worst president in U.S. history” and argued that Bush sought to “strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta.” According to Foner, Warren Harding of Teapot Dome fame was something of a paragon of virtue next to Bush, whose administration was characterized by “even worse cronyism, corruption, and pro-business bias.”
In 2007, historian Robert Dallek was so appalled by the Bush presidency that he proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for the “recall” of a sitting president: After securing passage of a 60 percent majority in both houses of Congress, the public would vote yes or no on removing the president and vice president from office. Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a flattering election-year biography of 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, declared in 2006 that “it’s safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder” and that Bush purposely tried to “brutalize his opponents.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who coined the term “imperial presidency” and had a tendency to apply it rather liberally to Republican presidents, at first considered Bush an “amiable mediocrity” but later saw him as a threat to not just the nation but also the planet. In 2005, Schlesinger wrote that the Bush administration was purposefully “driving⅜ toward domination of the world,” placing the constitutional system of separation of powers “under unprecedented, and at times, unbearable strain,” and was intent on “outlawing debate.” A 2010 Siena College Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Bush 39th out of 43, in the esteemed company of Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Harding.
The animus that scholars have directed toward Bush has at times made a mockery of the principle of academic objectivity. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2009, a panel on the Bush-Cheney years organized by a group called Historians Against the War featured scholars from Columbia, Yale University, Trinity College, New York University and Yeshiva University. They compared the Bush “regime’s” security practices to those of Joseph McCarthy and various “war criminals.” The cover illustration of the roundtable’s report showed Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, seated on a pile of human skulls.
All of this overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering has come from academics who profess to live the life of the mind. In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.
There is a difference between punditry and scholarship. The latter requires biding one’s time and offering perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day cool. An assessment of Harry Truman’s presidency looks quite different today than it did immediately after he left the White House in 1953. And no historian, especially Schlesinger, would have predicted in 1961 that 21st-century scholars would rank Dwight Eisenhower among the nation’s greatest presidents.
George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.
Stephen F. Knott is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror and His Critics.